Here’s an attempt at selecting some adjectives to describe the last year or so in Queens. After a bonkers 2022–23 offseason, a 2023 regular season that was nothing short of catastrophic, and a frantic trade deadline effort to mitigate some of the damage, this offseason, new Mets president of baseball operations David Stearns and company have so far taken an approach that could be described as measured. Last offseason, the Mets signed seven multi-year deals, including four valued at over $75 million. On Thursday, the club agreed to terms on just its second eight-figure contract of the winter, signing center fielder Harrison Bader to a one-year, $10.5 million deal.
The addition of Bader is the latest in an offseason of conservative one-year deals for Stearns’ group. They took a $13 million flier on Luis Severino, who will move over from the Bronx and slot in somewhere in the starting pitching mix after Kodai Senga and Jose Quintana (and perhaps future rotation additions). They made budget-friendly additions to a depleted bullpen, swinging a trade with Milwaukee for Adrian Houser, claiming a handful of arms off of waivers, and offering one-year deals to Michael Tonkin, Jorge López, and Austin Adams. They added to their position player depth with infielders Joey Wendle and José Iglesias (on a minor-league deal) and alliterative outfielders Tyrone Taylor and Trayce Thompson (also on a minors deal), who now have Bader looking down from above on the depth chart.
The Mets were in pretty dire need of another outfielder – particularly a strong defensive one – and they got one of the best defensive center fielders in baseball. Bader’s arm strength has been in the top 10% of outfielders in three of the last four seasons. He ranked in the 93rd percentile in fielding run value last season despite playing only 98 games, with his burst speeds continuing to rank among the best in baseball and contributing to overall strong range metrics:
Bader’s Fielding Percentiles
Fielding Run Value
Adding Bader does wonders for a Mets outfield that finished 25th in overall defensive value in 2023. Brandon Nimmo, whose bat is the clear priority of the group, took a step backwards defensively in 2023, dropping from six OAA in 2022 to just one. It’s always best practice not to read too much into a single year of defensive data, and Nimmo can still handle center on the occasions when Bader’s not in the lineup. But when he is, Bader in center means Nimmo can take a corner outfield spot – which Stearns says he is on board to do – that might otherwise have had to go to Starling Marte (whose fate is unknown after an injury-doomed 2023) or DJ Stewart. Jeff McNeil, who’s been an option in the outfield in past seasons, is expected to handle the bulk of the work at second base with Ronny Mauricio out for the foreseeable future with an ACL tear, so Bader holding down center – and Taylor capable of slotting in anywhere – gives the outfield group some needed flexibility:
Mets 2023 Outfield Rankings
An outfield with Bader in center and Nimmo and Taylor in the corners would make for the best defensive option on any given day, but new manager Carlos Mendoza will have some flexibility to mix and match based on which bats he wants in the lineup – contingent of course on which of an injury-prone group of players is healthy at any given time. Nimmo and Stewart hit from the left side, and Taylor and Marte have relatively flat career splits, but it’s the right-handed Bader who has the highest career wRC+ against lefties at 121. Even in his rough 2023, Bader had a 153 wRC+ in 97 plate appearances against lefties:
Career wRC+ Splits
It’s up in the air what Bader may be able to contribute with the bat if he can stay healthy. His offensive production has been inconsistent throughout his career, and he’s struggled at the plate since leaving St. Louis midseason in 2022, battling a host of injuries over that time. Bader is the type of player who can generate some value without hitting much, but if the bat gets going even just a bit, his value in the field and on the bases – the Mets just added to an already strong baserunning lineup – can turn him into a quite valuable part of their lineup. Thanks to his defensive and baserunning value, Bader was worth 4.1 WAR with just a 107 wRC+ in 138 games in 2017, and 3.2 with a 108 wRC+ in 103 games in 2021.
The Value Proposition of Bader
So what does Bader need to do to right the ship offensively? Discipline would be a good place to start. Bader has become more aggressive at the plate over the last few years, swinging at more of everything — including pitches outside the zone. As a decent contact hitter, he’s been able to swing freely without ballooning his strikeout rates, but he’s also stopped walking much at all, which hasn’t served his offensive production very well. He’s never had outstanding plate discipline peripherals, but he’s been a much better hitter when he’s swinging at, say, 30% of pitches outside the zone instead of 37%:
It’s not exactly fair to just write off two tumultuous years that featured two midseason trades and five trips to the injured list, but it’s also reasonable to expect something in between 2023 Bader and 2021 Bader at the plate in 2024. One of the three strains that sidelined Bader in 2023 was in his left oblique, a difficult injury when it comes to rotating with enough strength to generate the type of bat speed available to a healthy player. Bader struggled immensely on pitches over the heart of the zone in 2023, generating -12.3 runs of value overall, including -6.8 runs of value on swings. That’s a pretty uncharacteristic data point for Bader, maybe suggesting the oblique was at least partly to blame. From 2017 to 2022, he was worth 2.3 runs per 100 pitches over the heart of the plate, never below zero for a season; in 2023, he was worth -3.0. To make matters worse, he was swinging more than ever:
Bader’s Value on Swings Over the Heart
Batter Run Value
Batter RV / 100
With a healthy 2024 – which, to be fair, is no given – Bader could conceivably regain some of his rotational speed and be able to get the bat around on some of those middle-middle strikes like he had prior to the oblique strain. Bader was worth -7 runs overall at the plate in 2023 – had he been neutral on those swings over the heart of the plate, he would have been just about at zero runs above average overall. And a run-neutral Bader at the plate could provide enough defensive and baserunning value to make for a solid stopgap in what might amount to a bit of a rebuilding season in Queens in 2024. There will be a fair number of outfielders vying for playing time in Port St. Lucie this coming spring, but a healthy Bader should be their guy in center, at least unless and until top prospect Drew Gilbert comes knocking this summer.
I find myself succumbing to the kind of optimism that sometimes needs tempering when trying to analyze a baseball transaction. Bader is no savior to a Mets team that was profoundly underwhelming in 2023 – none of these measured one-year additions will be. The best bet is that at the end of the day, Bader ends up somewhere between a forgettable short-term Mets tenure and a pleasantly surprising role player, possibly dangled for a third straight midseason trade if the Mets are in position to sell. But $10.5 million is a modest investment for a player who meets a need with a shot at being a little more interesting still.